Science Story February 2023
The scientist's concierge
The life cycle of a research project begins with a question, something a scientist wants to know about the world. How do hummingbirds court? How do flower colors evolve? How are bumblebee populations changing? What are the tipping points in an ecosystem’s responses to climate change? And on and on.
The next question becomes: where do I do research? RMBL may come to mind. Many
scientists find out about this unusual field station in the Rockies by word of mouth. Or they’ve seen papers by RMBL researchers in scientific journals. So they reach out, draft a proposal, and submit a New Research Application to RMBL.
At RMBL, a Research Committee of peer scientists assesses the proposal, asking their own questions. Will the project be meaningful science? Is it feasible? Will it impact the environment? Will it hinder future research? All important considerations. It’s doubtful that a proposal for a mountainside forest clear-cut study or the permanent manipulation of a river will be approved. RMBL is here to facilitate future scientists as well as current ones.
After the assessment, the Research Committee recommends that RMBL staff approve, approve with conditions, or deny the application. An approved research plan is the scientist’s ticket to RMBL. Then the journey begins.
A scientist coming to RMBL for the first time is easily stunned by the beauty of the setting. The fields are covered in wildflowers. The atmosphere is sprinkled with birds, bees, and butterflies. Ground squirrels and marmots scurry about, foraging for the family’s provisions. At the heart of it all sits the picturesque remnants of an old mining townsite at the base of Mt. Gothic. But despite being once abandoned, the site is buzzing with scientists at the peak of activity. It is summer, after all, because if you’re studying living things when they are most active, you only have a few warm months to do it.
Scientists are eager to dive into their research, so the first thing they do is meet with RMBL Science Director Dr. Jennie Reithel. She and her team of RMBL staff solve the logistical problems scientists face to make their projects happen. Establishing new research sites is one of the first things to be done. The site has to meet researchers’ scientific criteria, such as south-facing meadows with certain plants or solitary bee habitats in sandy soils. Yet the site cannot step on the toes, or the sites, of existing researchers. It’s helpful if it’s easy to access. Finding the perfect site is no walk in the woods. Once scientists find sites that work for the research, they coordinate with RMBL staff to request permission and/or do the permitting that legally allows them to work at a site. At most field stations, scientists must do this on their own. At RMBL, they have a leg up.
Approximately seventy percent of RMBL scientists have research sites on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Fortunately, RMBL has a permit to conduct research on millions of acres of USFS land across three USFS Districts. RMBL also works with local ranchers, towns, land trusts, and other private landowners to request permission to conduct research on their private property. What’s more, RMBL offers scientists modern facilities and research equipment, housing, and meals on the campus. With more than 100 ongoing research projects and 4,000 research sites in the Gunnison Basin, the fact that RMBL handles the permitting for most scientists is a huge advantage to getting their projects off the ground. In effect, RMBL acts as a concierge service to help scientists do science.
Most of the research at RMBL is unseen by the local Crested Butte and Gunnison communities. But occasionally, it is highly visible. For example, a tethered balloon may fly over Gothic to collect atmospheric data, drones fly over sites to collect plant data, and scientists may temporarily turn the river red with nontoxic dye to gather hydrology data. When this happens, RMBL gives residents as much information as possible to avoid causing alarm.
In addition to keeping the lines of communication open with local residents, RMBL gives back to the community with such offerings as K-12 summer science camps, hands-on science projects with public schools, adult wildflower tours, distinguished lectures, breeding bird surveys, and summer seminars.
Amenities in abundance
Once a scientist’s project is up and running, they can help themselves to RMBL’s cornucopia of resources, from long-term data sets and the area’s natural history to the vast community of research colleagues, new contacts, and potential collaborators.
When a scientist’s curiosity brings them to RMBL, whether their research lasts a season or a lifetime, they become part of the RMBL legacy, enriched by RMBL’s commitment to support scientists. Their research directly or indirectly leads to more research. And scientists continue coming to the place where they and their questions are welcomed.
Jennifer Reithel, PhD, first came to RMBL in 1993 as an undergraduate, working on bee behavior research with Dr. Kristina Jones. Since then, she’s been a winter caretaker, graduate student, and instructor at RMBL. She became the Science Director in 2007. She and her husband Ian and two boys, Cormac and Giles, enjoy spending summers at Gothic, climbing mountains, looking for bees and membracids, drinking coffee at the Coffee Lab, and socializing in the dining hall.